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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1438 (06/08/01)

"Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip."

--Robert J. Hastings, "The Station"

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: We're bouncing around the recent comics news in the modest hope that, if we can't solve the problems facing the art form and the industry, we can, at least, ask some questions we think need asking. Our trip continues.

Marvel is targeting the bookstore market, according to one of the headlines on the cover of CBG #1435 [May 18, 2001]. I found it amusing that the cover story of said edition was the Planet of the Apes movie and the Dark Horse comics thereof, an amusement derived solely from my mental image of Marvel as this 1000-pound gorilla that sits wherever it wants. Said image has been updated from that of a SICKLY 1000-pound gorilla that not only sat wherever it wanted to, but generally left a mess wherever it happened to sit. Though I remain skeptical of some business/editorial decisions involving the company, I credit this moderately positive change in image to the efforts of Marvel President Bill Jemas and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada. It's been a while since Marvel has caught my interest with news not involving bankruptcy hearings, high-finance hijinks, and personnel firings.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the CBG article

    Marvel President of Publishing, Licensing, and New Media Bill Jemas announced in a press conference April 25 that Marvel would continue its relationship with Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. as Marvel's direct-market distributor.

    In addition, Marvel has expanded the relationship to give Diamond its exclusive trade paperback business in the bookstore market, which is a returnable one. Jemas said the movie has come "because Diamond has been a valued partner with Marvel; they deserve the business."


There are two stories here, the first being Marvel's continued confidence in Diamond, the second being Marvel's hope to increase its visibility in bookstores. While I wouldn't deny that there are positive aspects to these stories, you're getting that side of them elsewhere. (I tip my hat to a public relations department that has done a terrific job getting Marvel's "message" out to the public, though the hype can and does appear incessant and can and does get too boisterous on occasion.) My completely self-appointed role is to ask the *other* questions.

My retailer gets new comic books and related items every week, so, on that most basic of levels, Diamond has been doing its job. Yes, billing problems arise, damages occur, and shipping mistakes are made, but I'm not getting the impression that these calamities are so widespread as to constitute crisis proportions, unless, of course, they are happening to YOU. As a former retailer myself, I know how difficult it is to be philosophical and serene when it's your copies of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN that were mistakenly shipped to Sam's Comics in Kurdistan.

When it comes to getting product information to retailers and their customers, Diamond's PREVIEWS catalog manages to do a really big job fairly well and does so month after month. Oh, sure, the sheer size of the catalog has caused countless lower back injuries over the years, but Diamond can't be blamed for human carelessness. However, as the loveable monopoly it is, Diamond does have a moral obligation to join me in urging CBG editor Maggie Thompson to speed up production of her planned COMIC BOX LIFTING VIDEO WORKOUT tape, and thereby help readers and retailers around the world get in as good a shape as she has managed.

Getting back to PREVIEWS, I can't find a whole lot to fault in a publication which allows me to read about literally thousands of items every month and order as many of them as my finances (or lack thereof) and sanity (or lack thereof) permit. Back in the "Stone Age" of the comics shops, I and my fellow retailers hungered for as much product information as we could get. These days, you're more likely to hear a retailer complain about having too much catalog to read and too much product to choose from. They don't know how good they have it.

Here comes the "but" that you've been waiting for since this column began.

Diamond does a fairly efficient job of offering and supplying product to the comics shops, but it hasn't been doing a very good job GROWING THE COMICS MARKET, which, given that Diamond is a monopoly, should be a financial and a moral imperative for the company. Let's bring in some figures, courtesy of various sources, including our own John Jackson Miller of COMICS RETAILER fame, to see where the direct market stands.

According to 1995 estimates by Steve Geppi of Diamond and John Davis of the late (and lamented) Capital City Distribution, there were approximately 6300 comics shops. Although a recent CrossGen release mentioned that Diamond currently has 4300 accounts, I find Miller's estimate of 3400 more creditable.

In fairness to CrossGen and Diamond, however, I'll mention a theory put forth by comics fan and numbers cruncher Carl Henderson. He sees the difference between the COMICS RETAILER numbers and the CrossGen/Diamond tallies as being due to the former counting actual comics retailers and the latter including active accounts which are not comics stores per se. In any case, the best case scenario is that the industry has only lost 2000 shops and not 3000. This does not comfort me overmuch.

Diamond's failure to grow the direct market was addressed by comics veteran Jerry Ordway in recent correspondence with me. His credits include drawing and/or writing just about every major hero published by either DC or Marvel in the past two decades, including Superman, Batman, the original Captain Marvel, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and many others.

He wrote

    Why isn't Diamond, as the sole distributor of comic books, not trying aggressively to recruit *NEW* accounts/stores? Shops go out of business and no one tries to encourage new stores to take their place? We deserve to die then! With all the overstock in their warehouse, Diamond should offer a start-up account program, and put an ad for it in PREVIEWS. For that matter, they should post it all over the Internet as well.

    "Always wanted to own and run your own store? We'll help you and we'll show you how! Sign up for a Diamond Comic Distributors account and get discounts on cash registers, a big inventory of stock for pennies on the dollar, and support material on running a business!"

    Diamond is our lifeline. They could do this much without it costing them a dime, but they are seemingly content to watch the market dwindle to nothing! Any other business in the world would try to replace lost customers with new ones!


When I asked if I could run his comments here, Ordway gave me permission to run them and then added some further thoughts to the discussion

    My thinking on this stems from a side business my wife runs, selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Peg has used these products for many years and has been selling them for about four.

    Mary Kay Cosmetics, as a company, work on forward movement: sell, sell, expand the sales base by recruiting your best customers to sell also. It suddenly hit me that Diamond (and the major comics publishers) all sit around moaning as these stores go under, but no one tries to replace the accounts. At the very least, I think ads in Previews to recruit new accounts is in order.

    Many folks in Connecticut are driving 15-20 miles to stores, because their local one closed. How many customers are lost because they can't or won't drive that distance? I think those customers are worth hanging on to.


The store shortage is even worse for comics readers in other states, many of whom would be thrilled to drive a mere 20 miles to a comics store. For many of these fans, mail-ordering comics has become their *only* option.

Although there are those, myself included, who feel Diamond is not doing nearly enough in this vital area, the company has several programs in place through which it is trying to expand the market. At its website [www.diamondcomics.com], there is a list of reasons geared to a general audience as to why comics can be a good stand-alone product or addition to an existing business. Diamond sets up as an exhibitor at non-comics trade shows. Both are steps in the right direction.

The kind of "new retailers" program Ordway suggests would not come without some cost to Diamond. Still, these expenses strike me as very reasonable when the potential return on them is great. It would be nice to see those estimates in COMICS RETAILER going up instead of dropping or merely running in place.

On to the second part of this story. Given Diamond's failure to grow the market it already has, I was surprised when Marvel gave the company its exclusive trade paperback business in the bookstore market. I don't pretend to know all the details of this new deal, but I was heartened by what seemed to be an emphasis on the better service Diamond could provide to bookstores

    Jemas said the comics shop take for granted the service level Diamond provides in the course of its business as well as Diamond's "back-end strength": "Diamond has the ability to react on a dime. Bookstores have never seen that before. Diamond provides constant, round-the-clock shipping. That's why we think we're going to be comfortable; there's a very good value to the customers with regard to our [trade paperback] program."


Let's assume the above assessment is spot on and that Diamond and Marvel will be able to convince bookstores as to the shipping and handling benefits of this arrangement. That brings a few other questions to mind.

Will the bookstores be receptive to Marvel's trade paperbacks? At present, and I state this sans either derision or malice, Marvel makes only one thing: super-hero comics. They may be the best darn super-hero comics around--that's not something we need to discuss right this minute-but they are all super-hero comics. Marvel will be going into the bookstores with one kind of product and one kind of product only. The success of the trade paperback program will depend largely on whether there are LOTS of hitherto unknown super-hero readers just waiting to be introduced or reintroduced to the wonders of Spandex storytelling...and if the bookstores will allot enough of their space to said storytelling for those new readers to become aware of these books.

I hope those new readers ARE out there and that the bookstores are willing to buy into that hope. I like super-hero comics. I'd like to see more good ones. I like other kinds of comics as well, but Marvel isn't publishing other kinds of comics and I think they should play to their strengths while developing what I hope will be a terrific new market for them. I don't think a strong Marvel is necessarily harmful to the comics art form or the comics industry. Most of the time.

Most of the time? Did he say "most of the time?" And what's that spooky music we're hearing?

Historically, Marvel has not been known for its restraint when it came to publishing as many comic books as it thought the market could bear. When horror comics were hot, it published more than anybody else in the business. When romance comics were hot, love poured down like a tsunami from the Marvel offices. When westerns were hot, Marvel slapped more leather than...well, maybe I'd better leave that one to your imagination.

If Marvel could produce two or three great comic books in any given genre, then it would quickly publish twenty or thirty comic books in that genre. When there were not enough warm and lukewarm talents to fill the pages of new comics, Marvel published dozens upon dozens of reprint comics. When there were enough writers and artists, Marvel published multiple rehashes of traditional themes and as many variations of their core titles. The company put out lots of product, but the sales on the individual titles plummeted year after year, until only their very best-selling books now sell even close to or just over 100,000 copies per month in the direct market. The mighty had fallen at its own hand, the weapon being a market philosophy that never considered such basic concepts as "enough already" and "let's not kill the golden goose" and "let's try something different for a change."

Historically, then, there is sufficient reason to be alarmed by Marvel's nigh-evangelical embracement of their trade paperback program. With management, editorial and otherwise, steering Marvel creators towards multi-issue stories which would, in theory, work well in such collections, the TP editors will have a great deal of material from which to choose. Since they will also be considering classic stories from Marvel's past, we can kick that "great deal of material" up to "humongous deal of material."

Such abundance demands a selectivity Marvel has, as noted, not been known for in the past. The trade editors will have to resist the urge to collect every story by the flavors of the month. They need to consider whether these collected stories will be accessible to the hoped-for new readers or whether they will, instead, foster the belief that comics are only for those with the time, money, and inclination to consume them in vast quantities. If the latter is seen to be the case, there goes the casual reader and any hope of turning a casual reader into an avid one.

I want to see comics in the bookstores and, economically, the trade paperbacks are the art form's best shot at achieving success in that market. But that won't happen if Marvel and other comics publishers don't raise their editorial standards by a notch or ten, and produce books that will attract the casual reader.

I think the Archie Americana series is a fair example of how to do trade paperback collections. The books cover the individual decades and, if they were done better, would have both historical and nostalgic appeal for mainstream readers. The Archie volumes, good as they were, lacked the textual context which would have made them more than mere comics reprints.

Off the top of my head, let me suggest a collection of comics reprints that might just be audacious enough to attract interest in the book world. I'd title it something along the lines of...COMICS AND THE COLD WAR.

Without commenting on the merits of any particular political position, though veteran CBG readers can probably figure out where I stand on the issues, there is currently considerable discussion on whether or not the United States has resumed or is resuming the "Cold War" of the 1950s through 1980s. It's a subject of interest to many readers.

Veteran Marvel readers will recall, perhaps fondly, how Iron Man and other super-heroes often clashed with foes who represented opposing ideologies. The "Red Menace" was a mainstay of Marvel's 1950s/1960s war and science-fiction stories as well. And, despite the heavy-handed approach of almost all of these stories, some of them were, in their own way, exciting and well-crafted adventures.

Perhaps my favorite Iron Man story of all time, for example, is his three-issue battle with the Titanium Man (presented in TALES OF SUSPENSE #69-71; 1965) a tale of courage and friendship emerging victorious despite the overwhelming odds against them. Whether or not someone could consider it politically correct today, it remains one heck of a story, one worthy of preservation.

Imagine this and similar stories in a trade paperback which, in addition to reprinting some fine comics stories, put them in a historical and societal context by also including textual material discussing the attitudes and events of the times in which the tales were created. Yes, it would require more effort than the standard reprint collection, but it would also be different and intriguing enough to conceivably attract attention beyond the comics industry for its lively mix of adventure and education.

The keys to the success of the Marvel trade paperback program will be accessibility, ingenuity, quality, and restraint. The days when comics publishers could get by on mere quantity are long since passed. In the months to come, there will be difficult lessons for Marvel to learn. But I'm pulling for Jemas and Quesada to make the honor roll.

The journey continues next week.

******

ADDENDUM

I went a few friendly rounds with CBG editors Maggie Thompson and Brent Frankenhoff over this one. Brent's complain was, well, just plain silly: he didn't like the phrase growing the comics market and changed it to something more soothing to his refined ear. As I sometimes have to remind editors, I am the writer of the column (or story) and not them. Usually, CBG respects that. This time, the phrase was changed without my approval.

Moving further into the column, Maggie is more of a Diamond-booster than I am. She correctly edited out a logical error in my original manuscript, but then went a touch too far (as I see it) in lauding the company's (to me) meager efforts to expand the market. I kept (and rewrote) part of what she added, but cut her mention of two Diamond programs that are not geared toward new comics outlets but to existing ones. To quote her

    It [Diamond] even offers a Creator Clearinghouse (to help stories arrange in-store appearances) and Comics for Causes (to supply stores with Code-approved comics for donation to local organizations).


It is the basic nature of commentary, fiction, and journalism that editors and writers will occasionally disagree on what should be included in a piece of work and what is extraneous or incorrect. For some editors and writers, such disagreements can and have ended otherwise profitable relationships. However, I think it's to the credit of my editors and myself that I've contributed somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 cartoons and columns to CBG and only once reached an impasse which result in my pulling a feature from the paper's pages. That represents over two decades of a cordial and supportive working relationship, not too shabby in a industry where there are more sordid flings than true romances.

Two more things must be said.

One, I love my warm-and-fuzzy CBG editors, even when they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Two, they aren't wrong very often.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 06/01/2001 | 06/08/2001 | 06/15/2001 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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